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Ty Cobb

A Terrible Beauty

A fascinating and authoritative biography of perhaps the most controversial player in baseball history, Ty Cobb—“The best work ever written on this American sports legend: It’s a major reconsideration of a reputation unfairly maligned for decades” (The Boston Globe).

Ty Cobb is baseball royalty, maybe even the greatest player ever. His lifetime batting average is still the highest in history, and when he retired in 1928, after twenty-one years with the Detroit Tigers and two with the Philadelphia Athletics, he held more than ninety records. But the numbers don’t tell half of Cobb’s tale. The Georgia Peach was by far the most thrilling player of the era: When the Hall of Fame began in 1936, he was the first player voted in.

But Cobb was also one of the game’s most controversial characters. He got in a lot of fights, on and off the field, and was often accused of being overly aggressive. Even his supporters acknowledged that he was a fierce competitor, but he was also widely admired. After his death in 1961, however, his reputation morphed into that of a virulent racist who also hated children and women, and was in turn hated by his peers.

How did this happen? Who is the real Ty Cobb? Setting the record straight, Charles Leerhsen pushed aside the myths, traveled to Georgia and Detroit, and re-traced Cobb’s journey from the shy son of a professor and state senator who was progressive on race for his time to America’s first true sports celebrity. The result is a “noble [and] convincing” (The New York Times Book Review) biography that is “groundbreaking, thorough, and compelling…The most complete, well-researched, and thorough treatment that has ever been written” (The Tampa Tribune).

Ty Cobb — CHAPTER ONE —
LEANING INTO THE FULL-LENGTH MIRROR, and using a stick of stage makeup, Ty Cobb painted a jagged crimson line above his eyes of robin’s egg blue. Meant to resemble a battle wound incurred at a moment of gridiron glory, it looked, alas, more like the fever chart for a failing business concern: cosmetology as practiced by a twenty-four-year-old, heterosexual Detroit Tiger. Next came the burnt cork. Black maintained a prominent place on the theatrical palette in 1911—Cobb himself had several times been called on stage to receive the semiofficial “Champion Batsman of the World” trophy from a minstrel dressed in full darkie regalia—but now he required just a smidgen, for the right side of his chin, a fake scuff to balance the bright greasepaint gash.

“My only problem,” he said, leaning closer still to the looking glass and mussing his thinning strawberry blond curls, “is that I ain’t got any football hair.”

“Say, Ty, who taught you how to do that?” said one of Cobb’s two dressing room drop-bys that evening, Harry Matthews, a squat, cigar-chomping ex-minor-league teammate who managed the Albany Babies of the South Atlantic League.

“Nobody,” said Cobb. “I just had to learn how myself. All you got to do is make up natural, see?”

But it was hard to see through the smoke Matthews was emitting, and the fat old catcher turned aside and coughed on Cobb’s makeup pots. “So you’re a painter, too, eh?” he said finally, chuckling and choking. “Ain’t I pretty!”

The other visitor to Cobb’s cramped quarters that evening, the person who recorded this sparkling dialogue for posterity, was Howell Foreman, a cub reporter for the Atlanta Constitution. To the then new Atlanta Theater on that long-ago Saturday, Foreman had brought a large supply of mostly inane questions (“How do you think the acting of a game of football compares with the playing of a real game of baseball?”)—but also, it would turn out, the admirable instinct, or maybe it was just the journalistic naïveté (he was only seventeen), to leave his notes largely unprocessed rather than shaping them into a conventional newspaper piece. The somewhat serpentine result, while not exactly a pleasure to read, provides something like raw security camera footage recording what it was like to be Tyrus Raymond Cobb as the Georgia Peach neared the height of his baseball prowess.

It was damn disconcerting. Cobb, who had no acting experience and who, despite being the son of a renowned orator, always felt ill at ease when required to speak in public, was nevertheless spending his early off-season touring the country, or at least a large swath east of the Mississippi, in The College Widow, a well-known comedy in three acts by the celebrated Hoosier humorist George Ade. He played Billy Bolton, a handsome halfback tempted to transfer from Bingham to Atwater College by the latter’s coach’s conniving blond girlfriend. Although Cobb surprised some people with his almost adequate acting skills, especially those who had expected him to hook-slide in from the wings, snarling, and spike his fellow thespians where they stood, and though tickets were selling briskly in venues North and South, the venture was turning out to be not as enjoyable as George M. Cohan, the famous “Yankee Doodle Boy,” had assured him it would be over a long, boozy dinner one very complicated (and eventually bloody) night in Cleveland two years earlier. Touring, instead, was strenuous and stressful work performed at a season when he would rather have been tramping through the north Georgia hills with his hunting dogs and his friends—say, George Stallings, the former New York Highlanders manager, and Honus Wagner, the star shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, companions on previous bird-shooting trips.

But Cobb had made a commitment and because he wanted desperately to avoid disappointing both his audience and his promoters, he devoted much psychic and physical energy to what is supposed to be “the art that conceals itself.” From a seat near the footlights, you could see him sweat, and those who had spent as much as $1.50 for a ticket (about three times what it cost to watch him play the Cleveland Naps, the St. Louis Browns, or the Philadelphia Athletics) appreciated the sincere effort. In some of the same cities where, in the warmer months, he was booed and barraged with Moxie bottles for being such a danger to the aspirations of the beloved home team, audiences gave him a standing ovation at the end of each act and, as surely as if it was part of the script, shouted “Speech! Speech!” at the final curtain. But that only maximized Cobb’s misery.

On the field, he was an extraordinary improviser, and off it, in small groups, a raconteur of the first rank (the veteran catcher Moe Berg, a New Yorker who graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law school and was a frequent houseguest of Cobb’s in Augusta, would call him “an intellectual giant”). Yet at the podium—or beneath a proscenium, sans script—he lost his composure, and could sound like a typical tongue-tied jock. To avoid the nightmare of extemporaneous curtain-call oratory, Cobb would gesture extravagantly toward his heaving chest, the result of a 105-yard touchdown Billy Bolton had supposedly scored (offstage) in the play’s climactic moments, and mime a hero all too willing but alas far too winded to speak. His lame joke always worked, yet the groundlings’ groans of disappointment wore on him and made him envy the other ballplayer in the original cast, Joe Jackson of the Philadelphia A’s, who, despite being a raw rookie, had realized during rehearsals that he was not exactly born to tread the boards and had put on his walking shoes just before the Widow had opened in Trenton.

Cobb, who was making $500 a week, or more than twice as much as the relatively large sum he got to play baseball, had kept going, though, and by dint of strenuous concentration and dumb luck avoided disaster—until the players reached Pittsburgh, and in the upper right balcony, at the moment of the star’s opening night entrance, his twenty-two-month-old son, Ty Jr., had stood up and squealed “Daddy! Daddy!” The sea of twisting heads and waves of unexpected laughter had nearly capsized Cobb; Ade’s lines tapered to a palpitating point in his cortex, then vanished. They came back as soon as the house settled, thank goodness, and the show went on, but of all the nerve-racking moments he had endured in five-plus years of major league baseball—and these included fistfights, strained tête-à-têtes with President William Howard Taft (“Greetings, Citizen Ty!”), “black hand” letters threatening assassination (Cobb’s, not Taft’s), an endless presentation of watches, trophies, medals, books (he was known as a constant reader), and funereal flower-wreaths, as well as, of course, the occasional arrest for assault and battery—none was worse than that momentary Steel City meltdown.

• • •

Ty Cobb didn’t need this kind of aggravation. Getting invited to appear in cold-weather vaudeville was, after all, no particular honor. Ballplayers of every stripe had been dabbling in what George M. Cohan would have called “the show business” since the 1890s, when Adrian “Cap” Anson, the longtime Chicago White Stocking, then down on his luck, performed a depressing baseball-themed act with two of his grown daughters (he actually did slide into a base secured at center stage). In the months after the 1911 World Series (won by Connie Mack’s Athletics over John McGraw’s Giants in six games), while Cobb was appearing in The College Widow, Rube Marquard of the Giants was doing stand-up; the Pirates’ Marty O’Toole had a part in a Wild West show; three A’s (“Chief” Bender, Cy Morgan, and Jack Coombs) were appearing with the singing Pearl Sisters; Leonard “King” Cole of the Cubs, the inspiration for Ring Lardner’s “Alibi Ike” stories, was making the rounds in Chicago doing something vaguely theatrical, and Herman “Germany” Schaefer, one of Cobb’s former Tiger teammates and now a Washington Senator, was touring, with Cobb’s apparent blessing, with a satirical recitation called “Why Does Tyrus Tire Us?” For his acting talents, Cobb was probably pulling down much more than any of them, but by exploiting his fame in that fashion he was aligning himself with a crew composed mostly of prodigals, mediocrities, has-beens, and clowns. (Perhaps all one needs to know about Germany Schaefer is that he was personally responsible for major league baseball’s rule 7.08i, which forbids running the bases in reverse.)

Cobb in 1911 was still a young man wrestling with the question of what it meant to be this new thing called a celebrity—that is, when he was not down under the grandstand, postgame, wrestling with an umpire, teammate, or rival. If he was in fact the greatest player in the history of baseball, as no one less than Charles Comiskey, the president of the Chicago White Sox and one of the founding fathers of the modern game, had declared recently in a syndicated newspaper essay that was the talk of the sports world, then how did that status translate to his day-to-day existence? Cobb could not figure out whether, in real life, he should play the ultrasensitive Southern cavalier or the courtly, gregarious Georgia gent, and he wavered between the two roles his whole career. Yet coming off the 1911 campaign, he was fairly certain that the annual festival of postseason stunt casting was beneath his dignity.

• • •

Some people, some Sabermetricians, will tell you that 1911 was not the best of Cobb’s 231/2 seasons, and it’s true that in such esoteric categories as “run production” and “batting average relative to the rest of the league,” it demonstrably wasn’t. But you needn’t be a baseball nerd to know it was pretty wonderful. Cobb batted .420 that year, and set records for RBI (127), hits (248), runs (147), stolen bases (83), and longest hitting streak (40 games), all despite suffering for much of the summer from a hacking cough and stomach problems, which he thought might be typhoid but which were more likely nerves, and often playing against doctor’s orders. The numbers, naturally, never tell the full story and in Cobb’s case they fail to convey what an exciting player the haunted-looking, light-hitting rookie of 1905 had become: part Wee Willie Keeler (“Hit ’em where they ain’t”), part Freud, part Puck. Art history majors might also compare him to Caravaggio, the conflicted, creative firebrand of whom it was written in 1604, “he will swagger about . . . with a sword at his side, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” Cobb, though, never had to go looking for people to tussle with; they usually came (to speak like Cobb for a moment) a-calling.

In his prime Tyrus Raymond Cobb was a good-looking man—six feet tall and 190 pounds—who believed something fairly revolutionary for his time: that success in baseball went to the smart. He held the bat with a split-hands grip—unusual but not unique—that allowed him to make a last-second decision, to choke up and poke the ball over an infielder’s head—or slide his top hand down and swing for the fences (which, in the deadball era, were roughly a million miles away). Employed over the course of nearly two dozen major league seasons, this technique allowed Cobb to achieve a lifetime batting average of .366, amazing in his day and still the highest ever. But it was his philosophy of the game, not the bat-grip he shared with Honus Wagner and a few others, that accounted for his greatness.

That philosophy could be pared down to two words: pay attention. “He didn’t out-hit the opposition and he didn’t outrun them,” Cobb’s longtime teammate and onetime tormentor “Wahoo” Sam Crawford said. “He out-thought them!” Cobb spent his days studying his baseball rivals and mentally cataloging their tendencies, strengths, and faults, both as players and human beings, since he felt he could exploit both to his professional advantage; many evenings, while his teammates hung out in the hotel lobby (the pastime within the pastime in those potted-palmy days) or hoisted beers, he would sit in his room making notes and sketching plays while listening to classical violinist Fritz Kreisler on the gramophone. His “personal batboy”—Cobb could be more than a bit of a diva—Jimmy Lanier, said, “Cobb would lay awake in bed engrossed in plots to out-smart opposing members of other American League clubs.” “Some of my best ideas,” Cobb himself said in a syndicated newspaper series that appeared in 1914, “have come to me at night just before I fall asleep, when, they say, great poems often come to their authors. I get up and write them down.”

He was intrigued by the unpredictability of baseball, he often said, but it was perfecting ways to influence the proceedings and control the outcomes of various game situations that gave him the most satisfaction. He loved, for example, to find himself on third against the Highlanders (who were just starting to be known also as the Yankees in those days) because he knew that by dancing off the bag he could almost always draw a risky cross-diamond throw from their first baseman Hal Chase after a routine putout—and dash for home if the peg went awry. (It was pliable rivals like Chase that allowed Cobb to steal home 54 times in his career, another record that still stands.) Stepping into the box, Cobb liked to see a catcher staring at his feet to determine if he was thinking “pull” (feet spread wide apart) or “opposite field.” When under such scrutiny, Cobb would often assume one kind of stance, then hop to another as the pitcher released the ball, a fake-out move that some old-timers considered dirty pool.

Nothing pleased Cobb more, though, than the way he was able to handle the future Hall of Famer Walter Johnson, ace of the Washington Senators, the hardest thrower in the American League. After he noticed how upset the good-hearted Big Train got when he beaned batters, Cobb stood in against him as he did against nobody else, hunching over the plate and sticking his head into the strike zone. He could have gotten killed; instead, very often, he got walked.

But the Peach’s “pay attention” approach worked both ways. As much as he studied you he wanted you to think about him, so he could mess with your composure and your expectations, exploit your laziness or lack of focus, expose your particular and perhaps very personal fears. The hyperbolic sportswriters of the day credited Cobb with bringing psychology to a game previously packed with Bunyanesque bumpkins swinging rough-hewn clubs at saliva-sodden spheres—and hailed what he was doing as “scientific baseball.”

Or at least some of them did, some of the time. Journalistic standards were different then, and wildly inconsistent. Scandalous or embarrassing off-the-field incidents might be overlooked or played down as a favor to one of the participants. That Cobb’s mother had shot and killed his father a few days before Ty’s major league debut, that the minor league player the Tigers wanted over Cobb, Clyde Engle, was hampered by gonorrhea, that Cobb missed time early in the 1906 season because he had what was then called a nervous breakdown—such things were obscured by euphemisms if they were written about at all. In other cases, though, controversies might be concocted or exaggerated to please the sports editor and the reading public. Quotes were frequently manufactured, or so polished you could see the writer’s face in them; throw-pillow-worthy aphorisms and corny jokes, sometimes corny coon jokes, were credited to players who had never said such things, and almost everyone seems to have shrugged this off as just the way things worked.

On a slow news day, some of the same scribes who usually showered Cobb with hosannas might depict him as a maniacal base runner who preyed upon innocent infielders and hapless catchers with his feloniously filed spikes. His own hometown paper, the Detroit Free Press, once said that he was “dangerous to the point of dementia” (which is exactly what he wanted his opponents to think), and at least one editorial page writer opined in all seriousness that by tearing around the base paths in such an aggressive manner he was exacting revenge for General William Tecumseh Sherman’s bloody march through his beloved home state fifty-something years before.

The relationship between Cobb and cleated shoes, is, like most things Cobbian, complicated, and will be explored in greater depth, but let us say for now that Cobb denied the charges and many of his coevals backed him staunchly, saying he was merely playing the game the way it was meant to be played—and, by the way, so were they when they squashed their own spikes into his in-coming shins, ankles, and calves. “Cobb is a game square fellow who never cut a man with his spikes intentionally in his life, and anyone who gets by with his spikes knows it,” said Germany Schaefer, whose testimony must however be weighed against the fact that Cobb once gave him a $1,500 Chalmers sedan just because Schaefer, affecting ignorance of how things worked in the automobile age, asked Cobb if he might have it, since Cobb had two.

But whatever you called Cobb—sadist or scientist, cracker or Peach—he was unquestionably the biggest draw in baseball, the only player worth $100,000 to his team each season at the gate, in the opinion of the esteemed weekly Sporting Life (though he was never paid nearly that much). If one steers wide of the best-known biographies—Charles C. Alexander’s 1984 Ty Cobb and Al Stump’s 1994 Cobb, both of which tend to depict their subject as a crabbed, sad soul—and instead homes in on letters by and to Cobb, the testimony of eyewitnesses, and contemporary newspaper accounts, the reasons for his popularity quickly become obvious. “The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen,” said George Sisler, a Hall of Famer who played from 1915 to 1930. “And to see him was to remember him forever.”

Even if we confine ourselves to 1911, a year so productive that you’d think it would contain a minimum of irregularities and distractions, colorful and controversial episodes abound.

Consider an incident that occurred at Detroit’s Bennett Park on May 12 of that year. The Yankees were in town on that unseasonably warm Friday. In the seventh inning, with his team down 5–3, Cobb came to bat with runners on first and second—and hit a line drive off “Slim” Caldwell that smacked against the wall of the left field bleachers for an opposite field double. (Cobb, though naturally right-handed, always batted left.) The man on second, Tex Covington, scored easily, but Donie Bush, the trailing runner, barely slid in safely under catcher Ed Sweeney’s tag. Not surprisingly, given the closeness of the play, Sweeney turned to the umpire and, said the New York Times, “began a protest” while “all the members of the infield flocked to the plate to help.”

In other words, in the heat of the moment the Yankees forgot that Cobb was standing on second.

Under such circumstances it is the custom of the base runner to sit down on the sack and wait for something to turn up [the Times continued]. But Cobb, observing that third base was unguarded, trotted amiably up there. No one saw him. So he tiptoed gingerly along toward the group at the plate. He did not come under the observation of the public until he was about ten feet from the goal all base runners seek, where for a few seconds he stood practically still, peering into the cluster of disputants before him, looking for an opening to slide through. He found one and skated across the plate with the winning run under the noses of almost the entire New York team, Sweeney touching him with the ball when it was too late.

It has been said by many that Cobb lacked a sense of humor, and he himself said, “I have never been able to see the humorous side of baseball,” but on the base paths he showed a brand of physical wit that sometimes made people laugh out loud. His Chaplinesque seventh-inning score that day in Detroit would put the Tigers ahead for good. It was the fourteenth time he had stolen home plate in his still young career, and the second time he’d done it that month. “When I am on the bases,” he said, “I try continually to get as close to the home plate as possible, overlooking no opportunity.” Mere inches meant a lot to him. As he waited on base for a teammate to take his licks, he would constantly kick the loose sacks of those days in the direction in which he was headed, trying to gain every possible advantage. Two months later, on July 12 in Detroit, Cobb would steal second, third, and home on three consecutive pitches by the A’s Harry Krause. “He was like compressed steam,” said his fellow American League star Eddie Collins, later a manager and team executive. “Cobb was always exerting pressure, always searching out a weak spot here and there to display his seemingly inexhaustible and tireless energy.” Casey Stengel said that Cobb was the only player he ever saw who could score from third on a weak infield pop-up—he would tag up, then break for home as soon as the fielder began to lob the ball back to the pitcher. “His constant chiding, deriding, tantalizing demeanor when on a base has done more to upset the morale of the opposing infield than the mere taking of forbidden sacks, costly as those usually prove to be,” wrote Sverre O. Braathen, in his 1928 book, Ty Cobb: The Idol of Baseball Fandom. General admission—50 cents—was still a half day’s pay for many Americans, and yet surely here was a man who was worth four bits to ogle.

• • •

If the first half of Cobb’s life were a novel it would be a ripping page-turner, at times almost too heavy on incident. Not long after the Yankees left town that spring on May 24, he was sitting in someone else’s car in Detroit’s Cadillac Square when he noticed, about 100 yards away, in front of the Pontchartrain Hotel, a man cranking up the black Chalmers 30 sedan that he had won for leading the league with a .383 batting average in 1910. As the thief, a nineteen-year-old named John Miles, hopped in and took off, Cobb pursued him on foot, caught the car, vaulted into the topless tonneau, and, according to the Atlanta Constitution, turned off the engine and “hurled the youth into the street.” The next morning, after hearing out Miles’s sniffling bride of eight months, Cobb told a judge that “things had not been breaking well for the couple” and added, “I would be in favor of letting him go”—but the magistrate gaveled down his mercy plea, and ordered Miles to be arraigned.

Cobb—as surprising as it may sound to those who base their opinion of him on the ever-darkening myths that float through today’s popular culture—was not always the crankiest person in the room. The current-day conventional wisdom about him as encapsulated in the line mouthed by the Shoeless Joe Jackson character in the movie Field of Dreams—“No one liked that son of a bitch”—simply isn’t accurate. Many (including Jackson, Tris Speaker, Walter Johnson, and other greats of Cobb’s era) liked him, a lot. “He had his enemies, sure,” Lou Brissie, a major league pitcher in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and an acquaintance of Cobb’s, told me over lunch one day at a restaurant in downtown Augusta. “But with a man like Cobb, for most other guys on the team, it’s not a matter of like or dislike. He’s up there on another level, in terms of who he is in the world and how he thinks of himself and how he’s treated, the way Ruth and DiMaggio and Ted Williams later were. You might play ball with those guys every day, you might travel with them all over the country for years, but somehow you don’t think in terms of them being your friend. You didn’t think about how much you liked each other.”

Charles Alexander in his book tells us that Cobb usually got a warm welcome from opposing players, even if they were trying to hide their feelings of intimidation. “When Cobb came on the field,” he writes, “players on the other team would call out ‘Hello, Peach! How are you, Peach!’ and otherwise behave affably.” Cobb sometimes engaged with them, but on other occasions appeared aloof, as part of his nonstop psychological warfare. (“Baseball is 50 percent brain, 25 percent eye and 25 percent arm and leg,” Cobb said in 1912.) As a consequence of such behavior, some of his colleagues considered him a jerk. Heywood Broun, writing in the New York Morning Telegraph, said Cobb was “perhaps . . . the least popular player who ever lived” because “pistareen ball players whom he has shown up dislike him, third basemen with bum arms, second basemen with tender skins, catchers who cannot throw out a talented slider—all despise Cobb. And their attitude has infected the stands.”

And yet to many average fans, who did not feel competitive with him or threatened (or humbled) by his talent, he was simply an idol. They may have booed or feared him for the havoc he could wreak on their team. But they also sent him bushels of letters asking how they or their children might break into the game, or posed questions about hitting, fielding, or base running, And he almost always wrote back (eventually) in his trademark green ink with advice, and sometimes a pamphlet full of pointers he’d worked up for a sporting goods company, and sometimes a picture. Occasionally he would apologize for sending two pictures when the writer had only requested one, and he never failed to mention how flattered he was when someone asked for his autograph. The recipients of these letters would treasure them for the rest of their lives, and pass them along as family heirlooms. Ty Cobb was a deep pool of brackish water. The son of a bitch had many partisans.

• • •

That Cobb fans would come to number in the millions was made certain by an accident of timing. He wasn’t just the most super of the sports superstars; he was also, chronologically, the first. Cobb became the biggest draw in baseball—surpassing Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, and Christy Mathewson—just as the game was becoming, as Steven A. Riess tells us in his important book Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era, “an integral part of American life and not just a frivolous misuse of valuable time better spent in more gainful pursuits.” According to the myths fashioned by the magnates who owned the teams in the early 1900s, passed along by the journalists eager to justify their existence and slurped up by an increasingly sports-mad public, baseball built character by stressing team play, fast thinking, and acceptance of authority in the form of the fallible but ultimate ump. It also supposedly encouraged civic pride, discouraged juvenile delinquency, and helped the immigrants of the Great Wave to assimilate. In the popular imagination, or at least in the mind of newspaper editorial writers, it functioned, somehow, as a safeguard of democracy. In 1907 the New York Evening World’s Allen Sangree wrote, “As a tonic, an exercise, a safety valve, baseball is second only to death as a leveler. So long as it remains our national game, America will abide no monarchy, and anarchy will be slow.”

To be widely recognized as the greatest living master of this still new, nation-saving art put the young outfielder in a position of power without precedent. No wonder President William Howard Taft went in for the man-hug whenever he shook Cobb’s hand, and tried desperately to bond with the ballplayer over their connection to Augusta, where the bumbling one-term Republican sometimes summered. In the rapidly evolving popular culture, a radical possibility had come to pass: that under certain circumstances, an athlete could eclipse a sitting U.S. president. Indeed, when Cobb started touring with The College Widow some sportswriters speculated that what we were seeing was merely the second chapter in the life of a Renaissance Man, and that Cobb would conquer the stage the way he had conquered baseball and move on from there to God knows what—maybe medicine, the field his father had wanted him to pursue, or driving in auto races, which was something he frequently talked about doing—before finally deciding to settle down and perhaps even be president. Baseball was the bee’s knees, people felt, but baseball couldn’t hold him. It was to check out the rumor that he might soon “desert the dusty diamond to join the high-brow contingent and tread the Thespian boards” that the Atlanta Constitution sent Howell Foreman to interview Cobb backstage on a Saturday night in November of 1911.

Cobb found Foreman sitting in his dressing room when he rushed back during the first act to make a quick costume change—and he was too polite to turn the eager young reporter away. “He greeted me,” Foreman wrote, “with a broad beaming smile showing that he was trying to say ‘Glad to see you.’?” (Note the “trying.”) When Harry Matthews, the big Albany (Georgia) Baby, appeared moments later, Cobb shook his hand and told him to have a seat, then, Foreman wrote, “he hooked on a ‘ready-made’ white bow, and ran out of the door. He went on stage, had a few dances with ‘the widow’ at the faculty reception, and in five minutes came back in the room.” Surveying the scene warily, Cobb said, “Well, I won’t have anything to do for a while yet . . .” and indicated he could chat some. But when the second act started and his visitors stayed put, he was forced to change costumes in tight quarters and endure Foreman’s Chinese water drip of questions while keeping an ear cocked for his cues.

“How do you like this acting business, Mr. Cobb?”

“Oh, it’s very good. I just started this show in September, you see, so I haven’t had so much experience. [But] I never get nervous on stage; I didn’t even have the stage fright the first night. Of course, I felt a little funny when the time came for to hug the widow and me, a married man, but I got away with it. I like the soft stuff, the loving business, better than the rough stuff. I’ve had more experience, you know.”

Missing Cobb’s amusing self-reference, Foreman plunged ahead: “Mr. Cobb, do you ever get this horsehide-pigskin-buckskin business mixed up?”

“Nope. I manage to get along all right, I think; but of course, that’s for you fellows in the audience to judge. I can’t tell whether I’m getting ’em mixed up or not.”

“How does Mrs. T. R. Cobb like this love-making part of the play?”

“Oh, she doesn’t like this acting business much anyway. I don’t guess she likes me making love to others even on the stage.”

Once or twice, no doubt because of the conditions in his dressing room, Cobb missed a cue, Foreman wrote, and “the hoarse voice of the stage manager bellowed forth from behind the scenes.” Then Cobb, with a whispered “Excuse me,” would dash out to dance with a roomful of adoring coeds, or converse with his stern stage dad, or perform a love scene with the woman who played the temptress. At one point in the third act, after again begging his guests’ indulgence, Cobb left to jog in the corridor, so as to appear breathless from making his crucial touchdown. When he returned, Foreman was finally ready to broach the subject of whether Cobb was going to quit the green pastures of baseball for—one can imagine him making a sweeping gesture to indicate the smoky, windowless room full of mirrors and face paint and tedious visitors—“all this.”

Cobb shook his head. “Give me baseball every time,” he said. “This acting stuff is just the same thing over and over again. There’s no excitement to it. But in baseball, ah! That’s different. Baseball always excites me. Every day there’s something new to learn, something else to see. You never can tell just what’s going to happen. I can’t to save my neck sit still in a ball game. Give me baseball every time.”

• • •

Two decades later, retired and with no formal connections to the game, he had changed his mind. In a radio interview with an old friend, the sportswriter Grantland Rice, that was recorded in the early 1930s, he spoke of being thoroughly tired of baseball. “It’s a great game,” he said, “but I feel like a prisoner who’s been set free.”

“How do you mean, Ty?” Rice asked.

“Baseball to me was more work than play—in fact it was all work,” Cobb said. (He had a surprisingly high-pitched voice, and in his north Georgia accent “all” comes out sounding like a cross between “awe” and “oil.”) “I was lucky enough to lead the league [in batting] when I was twenty years old, and after that I wanted to lead it every year. I never thought I was any genius, so I gave my life to the game for twenty-five years. It was a constant battle, and it wore me out.”

That he was far from being a natural talent, like, say, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and thus had to work diligently at being successful is a constant theme over the years in Cobb’s public discourse. To maintain what he considered his ideal weight of 190, he ate only two meals a day, which meant he was hungry most of the time. To protect his surprisingly finicky eyes, he avoided coffee, milk, chewing gum, and movies. The off-season was no vacation for Cobb. On winter days he wore heavy boots and tried to stand and walk as much as possible; when spring training started he put lead weights in his shoes—all in the name of building up his legs for the championship season. Many of his contemporaries agreed that he was never very fast on his feet, just always in shape and brilliantly opportunistic.

The strategizing alone was exhausting, “I must have been in about 30,000 plays and I tried to think about every play and how it should be made,” he told Rice. “I believed in putting up a mental hazard for the other fellow. Every play was a problem of some sort. That’s what I mean by the strain and grind of twenty-five years.”

In another radio interview done a few years later, he sounded even more burnt out (and even less like a prisoner “set free”). The unidentified questioner starts off by referring to Cobb as “the roughest and toughest” ballplayer ever, then rambles on for what feels like minutes before finally arriving at a surpassingly dumb question, something about how he and Cobb both live in Augusta, isn’t that right, Mr. Cobb? The first time I listened to this old recording, I wondered if Cobb would brush off the inane icebreaker and go right back to the “roughest and toughest” reference. As much as he liked his opponents to believe that he was half crazy and capable of almost anything on the base paths, he was also, I knew, terribly sensitive about being described as an uncouth, violent person, and he might punch you in the nose if you even hinted at such a thing.

Cobb didn’t let me down. His first words back to the radio guy, who had just asked him where he lived, were, “Now, I appreciate what you say about me being the roughest and toughest . . .”

I thought: Okay, here we go! It sounded like Cobb was fixing to set this poor man straight, to explain to him and to the listening audience that to call him the roughest and the toughest is like describing Hamlet as “upset”—that is, to oversimplify matters to the point of misrepresentation.

But then he changed direction. Why, I of course can’t begin to say. Maybe he realized he had arrived very quickly at a crossroads in the conversation. Either he poured his whole life into this microphone by way of explanation, and tried to convey the nuances and subtleties of what it meant to be the Georgia Peach—or he took an easier path through what was essentially just another stupid interview (and since the advent of radio, fairly late in his career, the questions had gotten increasingly similar and stupider). In any case, he stopped objecting before he really got started, and went with the flow.

“The Good Book says, ‘Turn the other cheek,’?” he said, trying to sound chipper, “but you know I never believed in that much. It doesn’t prove out. I happen to have believed more in ‘An eye for an eye’ when I played baseball,” he said with a forced chuckle.

He was playing a role, just like he’d played Billy Bolton. I could forgive him for this. The truth was complicated and he was a very tired man. Truth wasn’t necessarily what people really wanted, anyway. Cobb didn’t live long enough to see The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but he understood the most famous line from it: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

• • •

Cobb never ran for president or became an actor or anything more than an occasional race car driver. His post-baseball life went, in most ways, pretty much the way you might expect. When the Hall of Fame came along in 1936, he was the first man selected for enshrinement. He did a lot of charity work, such as starting an education fund for Georgia boys and girls who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford college and founding a hospital in his hometown of Royston. And he became a go-to guy for quotes when the game of baseball changed in some way. In 1952, when the Texas League was finally getting around to realizing that Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier five years earlier, and let in a black player, he told a reporter who asked him about it that the integration of mainstream baseball had been long overdue. “I see no reason in the world why we shouldn’t compete with colored athletes as long as they conduct themselves with politeness and gentility. Let me say also that no white man has the right to be less of a gentleman than a colored man. In my book, that goes not just for baseball but for all walks of life.”

He lived out his life, in other words, doing what retired baseball stars do: accepting awards and acting like the wise and sometimes cranky old oracle. But what set Cobb apart from so many others was that myth of roughness and toughness. It didn’t just endure, it picked up momentum at a certain point after his death and started to grow and change. However much truth it did or didn’t contain at any point in its evolution, it took on a life of its own. Ty Cobb was replaced—overshadowed might be a better word—by “Ty Cobb,” a fully posable figure. Consider the issue of race. In making his statement about the Texas League, and in praising the play of Willie Mays and Roy Campanella on other occasions (the Dodger catcher, he said, was “the player who reminds me the most of myself”), Cobb didn’t just “clout a verbal home run for the Negro player,” as the Associated Press said in 1952; he set himself apart from fellow Southerners like Dixie Walker and Enos Slaughter, who had nothing good to say about the black men in their game, and openly resented their arrival. Two of the many men with whom he engaged in physical combat were black, it is true, but in his lifetime Cobb was not known as a bigot (few people not dressed in bedsheets were). He had black friends and fans, and on at least one occasion threw out the first ball of the season at a Negro League park.

And yet . . .

Try this: Go into a bar that has at least one working television. Sidle up to some beer sipper and, after a decent interval, say, “Ty Cobb, right?” The most common response, I’ve found in my several years of research, will be, “Oh my God! Tell me about it,” delivered with the obligatory eye roll. The second most common response is “Worst racist ever”—said with varying degrees of disapproval.

It is hardly just barflies who hold this opinion. “The mere sight of black people so filled Cobb with rage,” wrote Timothy M. Gay in his biography of Tris Speaker, “that on several occasions he brutally pistol-whipped African American men whose only offense was to share a sidewalk with him.” In the 1994 Ken Burns series Baseball, the respected writer and historian Dan Okrent called Cobb “an embarrassment to the game” because of his racism, and Burns treats Cobb as a dangerous miscreant: the anti–Jackie Robinson. Indeed, to the authors of the 2004 book American Monsters, Cobb fits squarely alongside Charles Manson, John Wilkes Booth, and the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (considered responsible for the deaths of 146 garment workers in 1911) in the pantheon of America’s most despicable villains.

American Monsters is not by any definition an important or influential work, yet it accurately reflects the conventional wisdom. More than fifty years after Cobb’s death, it is not difficult to find people who, though they might describe themselves as casual baseball fans, have never heard of him. Of those who recognize the name, though, most think of Cobb as a singularly horrible man, a murderer, even, of one or more black people.

“Are you going to tell the story of how he stabbed the black waiter in Cleveland?” someone asked me about halfway through my research on this book.

The answer is, Yes, well, sort of.

The book you hold in your hands is not meant to change your mind about “Ty Cobb.” For the most part, it is not about him; sorry.

This is, rather, the story of Ty Cobb.
Photograph by Diana Eliazov

Charles Leerhsen is a former executive editor at Sports Illustrated. He has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times. His books include Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty; Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America; and Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and the Birth of the Indy 500. He is a winner of the SABR Baseball Research Award. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the writer Sarah Saffian. Visit him at Leerhsen.com.

“No matter what you think of Ty Cobb, you’ll want to read Charles Leerhsen’s fascinating biography, as he dispels rumors, exposes frauds, and challenges everything you thought you knew about the most controversial individual ever to play the great game of baseball.”

– Kevin Baker, author of Sometimes You See It Coming

"Not only the best work ever written on this American sports legend: It’s a major reconsideration of a reputation unfairly maligned for decades."

– Allen Barra, The Boston Globe

“Superbly reported, wonderfully written and often quite funny, Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, is a highly enlightening and highly enjoyable book. A new Cobb emerges—many-faced and passionate—in this important, original view of a figure well installed in baseball lore. This is a first-rate book by a first-rate writer."

– Kostya Kennedy, author of 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports

“Surprise! It wasn’t the Georgia Peach who was prejudiced (especially), it was us, against him. Leerhsen’s feat of research brings the real Cobb home at last.”

– Roy Blount Jr., author of Alphabet Juice

"Ground-breaking, thorough and compelling. . . . The most complete, well-researched and thorough treatment of Cobb that has ever been written."

– Bob D'Angelo, Tampa Tribune

"Now Cobb has an advocate, one who's actually read all the old newspaper clippings (some of which flatly contradict common "knowledge"), visited the terrain, and interviewed as many relevant people as he could find. Cobb was indeed a bruised peach but, as the author shows convincingly, not a thoroughly rotten one."

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Leerhsen's magisterial reexamination presents a detailed view of Cobb culled from actual research rather than hearsay. . . . Thanks to exhaustive research, we now have a more realistic and sympathetic view of Cobb. . . . This is an important work for baseball and American historians as Cobb was one of the country's first true superstars."

– Library Journal

"Leerhsen wraps his penetrating profile of Cobb in gripping play-by-play rundowns and a colorful portrait of the anarchic 'dead-ball' era, when players played drunk and fans chased offending umpires from the field. This is a stimulating evocation of baseball’s rambunctious youth and the man who epitomized it."

– Publishers Weekly

"Charles Leerhsen has done baseball aficionados a great mercy by bringing to life Ty Cobb, the man and the ballplayer—warts and all, some might say. . . . And even more, Leerhsen summons up the days when baseball was young and innocent and, one thinks, filled with a kind of raw vitality that is missing today. . . . They don’t make them like that—or like Cobb—anymore. And the real Cobb is more compelling than the one of legend and film."

– Geoffrey Norman, The Weekly Standard

"A clear-eyed portrayal of Cobb not as a tyrant and not as a saint. It showcases Cobb as a flawed and vulnerable human being who, after suffering a nervous breakdown his second season, came back to fearlessly embrace his talent in an era that was just discovering what it meant to love baseball."

– Anna Clark, Detroit Free Press

More books from this author: Charles Leerhsen